“The world significantly underestimates the threat of nuclear conflict in Eastern Europe,” the CEO of the world’s leading national defense and intelligence firm Palantir wrote yesterday in a letter to shareholders.
Speaking for “the world,” we’ve got a lot on our minds. We’ve had a rough couple of years. Spring has finally sprung, and we and our children are looking forward to summer. And Palantir is a dumb name.
It’s the baby boomers who get credit for having lived through the real Cold War as children. They were the generation whose teachers taught them how to hide under their desks in case of an atom bomb. (Seriously?)
But you know what? My generation spent our formative years under the very same threat, growing up in the 1970s and 1980s—with some of the same crazy teachers.
My sixth-grade homeroom teacher, Mr. Werbach, was a Vietnam veteran, I think. He had a glass eye, which was super cool, of course.
But Mr. Werbach was a gloomy man. One of our classmates died of leukemia that year, and he seemed to relish the tragedy, as something he could sink his teeth into.
The only other thing I remember learning from Mr. Werbach (pronounced were-bok) was that our most likely cause of death was not leukemia, but rather instant annihilation from a nuclear warhead launched from the USSR, any minute. I remember learning that, because Mr. Werbach talked about this potential eventuality very frequently, and in great vivid detail. We learned how many warheads the Russians possessed, how powerful they were, how long it would take them to cross the Atlantic Ocean and how many it would take to destroy New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Cleveland, Akron and Hudson, Ohio.
Mr. Werbach seemed to feel it was his most solemn responsibility as a teacher to inform his pupils that we were probably doomed. Mr. Shirhall, the math teacher who fed guppies to his pet piranha and expected us to focus on our long division, was lighthearted and un-creepy by comparison.
But what did we know at the time, about adult responsibilities, and what children needed to know? Maybe the essential lesson was indeed, “Life is not a bowl of cherries.” And, “You’re probably fucked.”
Now that I am a grown-up, however, I vaguely wonder about whether Vladimir Putin can have it about up to here with Joe Biden, and push a button and make Chicago go away. (Or did all those 1980 Werbach Warheads get rusty or something? Or do we know how to shoot those missiles down now? Or was Mr. Werbach possibly a bit over-wrought?)
But it does not occur to me to impress upon my 18-year-old, college-bound, explosively living daughter that she will quite possibly die in a blinding flash and for no good reason at all.
I do wonder, though, why we adults aren’t talking a little more explicitly about it. Maybe, because we’ve assumed we were toast, all along. And living on borrowed time. (Maybe that formative fatalism is also why we’ve been such yawning assholes about climate change.)
And in any case, we don’t want to scare the children, who do seem to have had enough on their own minds, growing up. When my daughter was in fourth grade, she and her classmates were under their desks during an active shooter drill, when her friend Julie whispered an invitation to a sleepover that weekend. “Shhhhhh!” my nine-year-old shushed back. “We’re on lockdown!”